2018 falls exactly 100 years on from the end of the First World War and it was not by coincidence that this significant anniversary was celebrated during ‘Luke Days 2018’ at the home of the 56th Fighter Wing (FW). Luke Air Force Base (AFB) is itself intrinsically linked to the First World War through Second Lieutenant Frank Luke Jr, a Phoenix native and the first aviator in the US military to be awarded the Medal of Honor – the nation’s highest military award. Frank Luke Jr was awarded this huge accolade posthumously after gaining eighteen ‘kills’ in the air and meeting his untimely death. Nicknamed the ‘Arizona Balloon Buster’, Luke was shot down and after surviving the ensuing crash landing, engaged advancing German troops on the ground killing several with two pistols before being mortally wounded himself.
It didn’t go unnoticed by this ex-serviceman, and indeed many other veterans, that the national and state flags were only hoisted to ‘half-staff’ on the day of the show. This was a poignant and sobering reminder for all that this two-day public celebration was to offer appreciation for the local community support where the role of the military and its global reach does not stop from the masses of Phoenicians. Two days earlier, the United States Air Force (USAF) community learnt the sad news that an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter (callsign ‘JOLLY51’) had crashed with the tragic loss of all seven crew members while flying over western Iraq.
Since 1941, Luke AFB has been the home to the training school and has become known as the ‘home of the fighter pilot’. In March 2000, the 56th FW – which comes under the Air Education & Training Command’s (AETC) 19th Air Force – graduated its 50,000th student fighter pilot and that number continues to grow as the base carries on its evolution teaching the next generation of crews that will go on to operate the Lockheed F-35 Lightning II. The migration process to becoming the F-35 Centre of Excellence is already well underway. With a full ‘mission transfer’ to solely operate the F-35, training on the type will be given to both the USAF and other military customer partners. In time, the 170 strong F-16 fleet will give way to 144 F-35As – an air force in its own right! During this visit, it was possible to see F-35s currently operated by the air forces of Norway, Italy, Japan and the Netherlands as well as the host nation’s machines.
So, what of the show? The very fact that this is a two-day event would indicate to the reader that this is a major event on the North American air show calendar. Getting to the show was remarkably easy and the organisation in the car parks was both slick and efficient. The author made the Saturday morning somewhat more challenging deciding to fly in from Las Vegas! Catching a 0630 American Airlines A320 flight direct into Phoenix Sky Harbour before collecting a hire car from the centralised off airport hire centre and driving the 9-miles to Luke AFB, I was walking through security at 0910. The security staff were thorough, polite and kept the lines moving, triaging the masses as they approached the checkpoints and ensuring that everybody got a good start to their day. Getting off site was just as simple and made all the easier by the friendly off-site car parking team… I say ‘off site’, it’s no more than a 400m walk!
Walking towards the flight line, the first delight for the aviation photographer was the ‘Heritage Park’. For those unsure, most military aviation bases in the US have such a display paying homage to the history of the facility and its enduring mission. This particular park traces the lineage of types used to train US fighter pilots from T-6 to F-16 with nods of gratitude to the likes of the F-86 Sabre, F104 Starfighter, F-4 Phantom and F-15 Eagle. Kept in near immaculate condition – a sign of how important honouring their past is – the aeroplanes are very photographable, albeit with a little patience.
Walking onto the flight line itself, you were immediately immersed into a smorgasbord of jets, warbirds, helicopters, tankers and transports – more eye candy than you can deal with on that first pivotal scan! Most seasoned air show goers will have a picture of what they believe to be their ‘targets’ for the day, but that plan is soon dispensed with as priorities change, unforeseen ‘pop-up targets’ emerge and the volume of air show public and lighting opportunities take hold of reality. The flying doesn’t get going until lunchtime which actually affords a fair amount of time to get around the static show, wade through the torrent of amazing squadron merchandise that is available and then fuel up on food and drink ready for it to begin. Having attended shows at NAS Oceana, NATO Tiger Meet and the Royal International Air Tattoo, I think the centralised merchandise ‘village’ works very well and perhaps this could be looked at for future editions of Luke Days. All the aircraft on static were well supported by air and ground crews, all of which very keen and delighted to answer questions about their aircraft and mission whilst pushing out their ‘swag’. The HH-60G crew were understandably still trying to come to terms with what had happened only two days earlier, but nevertheless, they were there in the static proudly showing off their aircraft and taking on board the messages of thanks for the service both they and their comrades in arms provide day in day out.
So, what of the flying on hand? The US air show scene is very much a commercial circus if you will, with a wide and eclectic mix of performers ranging from what the military seems to provide routinely to those individuals that tour the country, state by state in true ‘old school barnstormer’ fashion.
Strangely I found myself drawn to one performer above all others in the diverse planned flying programme, an air show act that brings technology and nostalgia together in one big ‘Screaming Sasquatch Jet Waco’ way. This merger brings together a Pratt and Whitney 985 radial engine with a General Electric CJ610 jet engine, the latter rated at 3,500lb of thrust. Combining the output of both power plants gives some 4,500lb of thrust to the hands of retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel John Klatt. With a power-to-weight ratio greater than 1:1, the aircraft will accelerate in the vertical up to the normal flight limit of 250kts and it’s the vertical manoeuvres where the jet excels, nothing that a combat veteran F-16 pilot can’t sort out though!
There is always that blend of civilian and military performers in the US, and Luke was no different, particularly being able to gain the support of the US Navy Blue Angels for the first time since 1992. Other notable military support came from the A-10C Thunderbolt II Demonstration Team based just down the road at Davis Monthan AFB. The ‘Hog’ display never grows old, and this year’s routine flown by Captain Cody Wilson is as good as it gets. Obviously, the home team did not disappoint with a choreographed tactical display flown expertly by two of their F-16s and an F-35. Heritage flights differed across the two-day event; Saturday saw a P-51, F-16 and A-10 three-ship whilst the Sunday saw an F-35 added to the already impressive formation. An additional military display was performed by a MC-130J and HH-60 simulating an aircrew extraction, with the addition of ground support. At the top of the show, the US Air Force Academy Parachute Team – Wings of Blue – made a symbolic and patriotic opening to the show with a descent into crowd centre from their UV-18B jump ship whilst the national anthem was played.
‘Tora, Tora, Tora’ provided a very dynamic display with added support from the Phoenix based B-17G ‘Sentimental Journey’. This team’s history goes way back to 1972 originally consisting of six replica Japanese types. Today, the display is very well thought out with added pyrotechnics, while a continual effort to keep aircraft at show centre as the guest bomber performed fly throughs was superb. The commentator takes you back to the day when Pearl Harbour was attacked and keeps the photographer constantly on the lookout for the numerous ‘cross overs’ and background explosions – a fine effort!
Other notable performers included Gary Rower with a stock Stearman, Bob Freeman in his Extra 330SC, the ‘Desert Rats’ with their four-ship of CJ-6s, Brad Wurston in the small but manoeuvrable MXS-R, Greg Coyler in his beautifully turned out T-33 better known as ‘Ace Maker’, Bill Stein in his Edge 540 and a P-51C Mustang in Tuskegee colours form the Confederate Air Force.
So, what was my perception of the show? Definitely, a jewel in the air show calendar, but not without its challenges given the position of the sun from about 1400 onwards. The static was varied and interesting with great access to the aircraft involved, but a photographers ‘early-bird’ walkabout would be so valuable should it be considered by the local and air show authorities alike. The flying over the two days will always be a winner to the avid photographer, allowing a first day recce that will make sure the ‘money’ shots are not subsequently missed the next day. The ground show was well supported with plenty of concessions available to keep food & beverage queues at an acceptable level throughout.
The walk back through the hotel lobby in Vegas at 2300 was no different to that I had made at 0430 – Las Vegas is a machine! The bit in the middle however, for me, was the real difference, a great day out!
The author would like to extend his thanks to the commander of the 56th FW Commander Brigadier General Brook Leonard, his team and to the Luke AFB Public Affairs Office for their cooperation in supporting AeroResource at this event.